NEW YORK — A new startup company is hoping to ride the crowdsourcing wave and raise millions of dollars to fund scientific research, space exploration projects and other educational initiatives.
The company, called Uwingu (which means “sky” in Swahili), was founded by a team of noted astronomers, planetary scientists, educators and other industry officials. The idea was to create new ways for people to receive funding for innovative projects beyond the existing grants infrastructure.
“It started a couple years back, and central to it was the idea that there really isn’t an alternative for space researchers and educators other than NASA, and a bit from the National Science Foundation,” said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and former associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “So, people are really living and dying in those fields by what happens to NASA’s budget. We thought, why can’t we create a 21st century way to provide an alternative?”
Stern became one of the founders of Uwingu, and he is in good company. The team includes space historian Andrew Chaikin, exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy, who is also chair of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, and Pamela Gay, a noted astronomer and educator.
With NASA ensnared in a tight budgetary environment, some agency programs, such as planetary science, are falling victim to sweeping cuts. Stern and his colleagues are hoping that funds raised through Uwingu could provide alternatives or a safety net in these situations. But, the possibilities do not stop there. “We think this will evolve in really interesting ways,” Stern said. “Some of it will be helping out people who are struggling through budget cuts, some people may be seeking supplemental funding to what they got from NASA or [the National Science Foundation], others may have some projects that are too risky for NASA to fund and they don’t make it through their review panel.”
As such, the primary goal is to provide more options for the scientific community.
“We would love to be a parallel stream,” Stern said. “We can be quite a force, and we would love that, but it’s not meant to replace or compete with anything — it’s an adjunct. If it’s a four-lane highway now, we want to add a fifth lane. We’re not going to compete with billion dollars programs, but in our own small way, we can start to make new inroads.”
Uwingu aims to award money through a selection process similar to NASA and the National Science Foundation. The company will issue a request for proposals, and a peer review panel will select various projects for funding.
“The projects may be very small,” Stern said, “but $1,000 can make a big difference to a school, and $10,000 can make a huge difference to a graduate student.
But first, Uwingu needs help from the public. The company has launched an ambitious crowdsourcing campaign to raise at least $75,000 to officially launch the company and fund its operation.
“We’ve initially funded the company like a lot of startups, as in the founders wrote checks, and people are doing the work on their own time,” Stern explained. “But, if the company drowns in the first two months paying Internet bills, it doesn’t do anybody any good. We have to get to a point where we’re self-sustaining, and that’s what this campaign is about.”
If all goes according to plan, Uwingu hopes to launch a marketing drive and bring its first project to the market in the fall. From there, the sky, as Uwingu’s name suggests, is the limit.